The United Arab Emirates stand accused of blocking criticism over their human rights record, according to international monitoring group Human Rights Watch.
Each year the organisation publishes a global assessment of human rights. This year marked their 24th annual review and summarised key human rights issues in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide, drawing on events from the end of 2012 to November 2013. The work is available for free from their website.
The report contained a 1,400 word chapter about United Arab Emirates, criticising the country for abuses carried out against migrant workers, womens rights, use of torture, arbitrary detention, a poor justice system and lack of political freedom.
Following its publication online, Mohammed Ahmed Al Murr, Speaker of UAE’s Federal National Council (FNC), denounced the report, telling a government meeting:
“It involves many fallacies that are not based on any foundation and contradict several other international organisations’ statements, which testify to the significant progress achieved by the UAE and its honourable record in various areas of human rights.”
His criticisms were published by the state news agency on 22nd January 2014.
That same day, a press event in Dubai was cancelled unexpectedly, when staff at the Novotel hotel told Human Rights Watch that a government permit to hold the event had not been obtained.
“The staff were nervous, they’d been put in a difficult position,” explained Nick McGeehan, Middle East Researcher for Human Rights Watch, who was due to speak at the event.
“They told us that our event had to be cancelled, because a permit had not been obtained.”
“So I asked “If I get this permit, can we run the event?” Then they told me that the room had already been given away to someone else. That’s when we realised the event had probably been prevented from going ahead by someone in the government,” McGeehan told Index on Censorship.
The launch of the report had been accompanied by a series of press conferences, kicking off in Berlin then covering Moscow, London, Sao Paolo, Washington DC, Jakarta and Johanesburg, as well as Tripoli, Sanaa, Kuwait City and Amman. Dubai was the only location where the press conference was not allowed to take place.
Human Rights Watch say they’ve held several news conferences in Dubai since 2005, without any requirement for an advance government permit. They also say they haven’t been able to find information about such laws or permit requirements from their research.
In February 2012, at the last Human Rights Watch news conference in Dubai, people who identified themselves as UAE government employees interrupted the event, stating that a permit was required. Following this incident, Human Rights Watch wrote to Shaikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai to request clarification, but say they received no reply.
“Blocking Human Rights Watch from holding a news conference in the UAE sadly underscores the increasing threat to freedom of expression in the country,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued on Human Rights Watch website. She was preparing for a planned trip to Dubai in just a few days.
“If the UAE wants to call itself a global media center, it needs to show that it respects freedom of speech and the open expression of critical ideas, not shut down media events,” she added.
Her statement was issued on 22 January – two days later she was barred from entering the country when she landed at Dubai airport for the start of a two day tour.
Whitson has traveled to the UAE on numerous occasions. An ex-Goldman Sachs lawyer who attended Harvard Law School in the same class as Barack Obama, she has conducted several human rights missions in the Middle East, including examining the impact of war and sanctions on the Iraqi civilian population, elections in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, and human rights issues in southern Lebanon.
Whitson’s boss, Kenneth Roth, stepped in when he heard news of her rejection at the border.
“These petty tactics by the UAE authorities only demonstrate the government’s intolerance of free speech and fear of critical discussion,” he said.
“Human Rights Watch will continue to document abuses in the UAE and to urge the government to comply with its most basic human rights obligations.”
In contrast to her reception in Dubai – Whitson went on to Yemen, where she meet with the transition government and had, according to the state news agency, a “fruitful” meeting. Human Rights Watch also levelled strong criticism at the Yemeni authorities in their annual report, accusing them of “failing to address multiple human rights challenges.”
Unable to hold the event as planned, Nick McGeehan stayed on for a day to was pulled aside by customs officials as he left Dubai, and told he had been permanently “blacklisted.” His colleague Tamara Alrifai, Advocacy and Communications director for the Middle East and North Africa division, who had also been scheduled to speak at the event, was told the same. The parting words from the customs officials, polite but firm, were allegedly “You are not welcome in my country.”
Human Rights Watch is an independent, nongovernmental organization, supported by contributions from private individuals and foundations worldwide. It accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly, and although based in the US, has been fiercely critical over issues such as Guantanamo Bay and the “war on drugs.” It also maintains offices all over the world and works closely with local activists.